I didn’t listen too much to The Damnwells, but those who did are well acquainted with frontman Alex Dezen. He’s recently gone solo, giving him freedom to experiment with sounds. The whole album is intriguing, with Dezen exploring swampy rock’n’roll, synth-pop, folk-pop, indie-pop, and more. All of it is built around his lithe, assured vocal delivery; no matter what the vehicle, Dezen’s vocals and melodies shine.
That’s true of “Everything’s Great (Everything’s Terrible),” where Dezen pulls off Graceland-style African-influenced pop with ease. Fans of Paul Simon’s masterpiece will find themselves headbobbing along to Dezen’s long vocal lines, extended verse lengths, and bubbly arrangements. The melodies are chipper, sunny, and smile-inducing, which (purposefully) contrasts with the less-happy lyrics. (Much, as you may remember, Paul Simon did in Graceland.)
This isn’t a rip-off, though–Dezen’s melodic sensibility pushes through the instruments and the vocals, keeping up the unique flavor that sets it apart from other artists and meshes it with the rest of the album. As with Graceland, the instrumental musicianship should not be lost amid the joie de vivre of the melodies and the complexity of the lyrics against that backdrop. The arrangement sells this song with consummate, professional ease. Dezen’s instrumental prowess shows here, as he plays almost all the parts on this track. Overall, the tune is a blast of pop that you just can’t beat on a warm day.
Ah, 2017! I’m pleased to be starting the new year with a fantastic song to premiere.
MAITA is a Portland-based songwriter who has turned out an exciting chamber-folk tune in “Kinder than Most.” MAITA’s lilting alto leads the way: her range and notes are carefully controlled, but the engaging, intriguing swoops and leaps of her vocal melodies give the song a bit of a woozy cast. The arrangement is almost the definition of chamber-folk, as pizzicato strings, precise-yet-round bass, gentle percussion, and subtle acoustic guitar mesh together into an arrangement that feels by turns spartan and lush.
It would be a crime not to mention the excellent engineering here, which takes all these beautiful parts and makes them sound as if they’re happening a foot away from me. In that way, it’s a fully realized song: the vocals, arrangement, and engineering all come together perfectly to create a top-shelf tune. Fans of Dana Sipos’ stark folk will find much to love here, while fans of My Brightest Diamond will hear echoes that draw them in (albeit folky echoes).
“Kinder than Most” comes from Maita’s debut EP Waterbearer, which comes out 1/27. You can pre-order it now. I’m very much looking forward to reviewing the full release shortly.
The last time IC checked in with Jake McKelvie, he was blasting off at rocket speed over folk-punk strumming. If the title track/first single of McKelvie’s new EP The Rhinestone Busboy is any indication, this release is going to be a lot different.
“Rhinestone Busboy” is a pristine, walking-speed country shuffle with indie arranging tendencies, much like Clem Snide’s work. Over a brushed snare shuffle and unhurried acoustic strum, warm keys and electric guitar with vintage-style reverb settings ring out in a precise yet charming method. The engineering is bright and sharp, which results in a very effective fusion of the traditional with the modern.
The delicate, carefully constructed arrangement is matched by McKelvie’s languid, easygoing vocal delivery–he’s perfectly at ease here, allowing his voice to have all sorts of honest, subtle emotional inflections. The lyrics tell a story of a romantic reconnection that actually turned into ships passing in the night–a tale with more twists and turns than I’d expect from the musical style. But even in simplicity, McKelvie can draw out complexity. It’s a fascinating track that calls for repeated listens and has me quite excited for the full EP, which drops December 20.
Kyle Cox‘s “Trusty Ol’ Pair of Boots” is an old-school train-whistle country song, complete with traditional bass work (love me some standup here), vocal harmonies galore, and even a guitar solo. The vocal melodies are familiar and warm, but not derivative; the love song lyrics are simple, earnest, and a perfect fit for the song. It’s basically everything good about country music.
So to make that excellent song even better, Cox paired it with a charmingly simple video. Instead of going to high-drama lengths (which wouldn’t fit the song at all), Cox recruited his wife to play HORSE on the basketball court outside their house. The very pedestrian yet fun and funny activity matches the candor of the tune, which is a pledge of steadfast marital allegiance. Some people would chafe at hearing their relationship called a trusty ol’ pair of boots, but those who wouldn’t are going to understand both the song and the video. I love it all.
Also, I just really like basketball.
Kyle Cox’s Trio and Friends came out in June; you can pick it up at iTunes. He’s got a bunch of shows through the South coming up, so you should check him out on those. Maybe you’ll get to play some hoops with him.
I’m the sort of Dawes fan that considers “When My Time Comes” an absolute essential for a successful Dawes concert. The major-key romp is tied for “Little Bit of Everything” as my favorite tune in Dawes’ oeuvre, even though most of their work (and basically every bit of All Your Favorite Bands) sounds more like Laurel Canyon laid-back country. So it’s with great excitement that I’ve discovered A Valley Son‘s Sunset Park, which is six tracks of enthusiastic full-band alt-country with lots of American roots rock thrown in.
After a scene-setting instrumental intro, AVS kicks it in with the fuzzed-out guitar and blaring organ of “In the Low Light of the Late Afternoon.” “Low Light” is a song of youthful excess and bravado, matched in fervor by Trey Powell’s confident vocals. Powell’s low tenor is lithe and adaptable: he swings from observant to mocking to self-deprecating in rapid succession, selling each change with subtle intonations and careful delivery. He can also throw down a joyful chorus: the refrain here is one that I’ve been humming for days, as much for its enthusiasm as its melodic quality. Powell shows off his versatile vocals elsewhere in the more straight-ahead rock song “Lights in the Sky” (which we premiered) and the careening closing ballad “Shaken, Abrupt.”
The latter tune is a particularly valuable turn instrumentally as well; it shows off another side of the band after four midtempo rock songs. The band knows how to crank out the rock: they can turn out zinging lead guitar lines (“Dark Places”), chunky bass runs (“Sunset Park”), and mood-setting drums (“Lights in the Sky”) with ease. Most of this EP was recorded live, and it really shows. Instead of sounding clinically precise, the songs roll and lunge along in a satisfying way. The closing instrumental salvo of “Lights in the Sky” feels raw and organic, like a band having such a good time that they’re going to run it back some more. I can’t help but get behind a band like that.
But about “Shaken, Abrupt,” the color tune in a clutch of strong rockers: while it does have some guitar theatrics toward the end, this one relies less on the band and more on Powell’s vocals and electric rhythm guitar. Powell is up to the challenge, as he delivers a confident vocal line over a guitar performance that doesn’t get in the way. Powell’s howls here aren’t of the abrasive type that Hamilton Leithauser (The Walkmen) conjures up, but the two vocalists share a propensity to just go for it on a big, sweeping line. That quality gives this and all the rest of the tunes a distinct character which points towards good things for the band.
A Valley Son’s debut EP establishes them as a band to watch. Between the distinctive, versatile vocals and the enthusiastic alt-country/roots rock instrumentation, AVS has a lot of pieces that can translate easily onto bigger and brighter stages. At the moment, they’ve created six tunes that are satisfying in a variety of ways. Sunset Park drops today. You can check the band out in New York over the next few weeks:
August 10th, Sofar Sounds NYC
August 13th, Union Hall, Brooklyn, NY (Album Release)
August 26th, Rockwood Music Hall, NY, NY
Folk-rock, alt-country, and indie-rock fuse in A Valley Son’s “Lights in the Sky”: it’s got call-and-response vocals, crunchy guitar twang, and a breakdown instrumental outro. The song is such a tight marriage of the three genres that it’s not entirely productive to discuss it more than to get you interested.
Trey Powell’s baritone vocals lead the tune, giving way occasionally to bright, crunchy electric guitar work between sections. The band is really tight: the arrangement feels comfortable and assured, giving the vocals just the right amount of space without blending amorphously into the background. (And check out that rad instrumental outro, too.) The backup vocalists play a big part in the atmosphere of the song, coming in consistently as support at the end of verse lines and throughout the chorus. Their efforts contribute to the warm, collective feel of the tune.
“Lights in the Sky” is a top-shelf tune that should help put the band in the conversation with much more established bands. It’s more alt-country than The Low Anthem, but not so much as the Old ’97s; I immediately thought of the major-key alt-country of Denver’s 4H Royalty as a comparable sound. Dawes and Ivan & Alyosha also would fit as peers. If you’re into noisier folk-inspired work, this track will be right up your alley.
This song is the first single off A Valley Son’s debut release Sunset Park, which will drop late July/early August. If you’re going to be in the Northeast, you can check the band out on these dates:
June 11th, The Fire (Philly Single Release) – Philadelphia, PA
June 18th, The Waystation, Brooklyn, NY
June 24th, DROM (NYC Single Release), NY, NY
July 8th, Hometown, Brooklyn, NY
August 13th, Union Hall, Brooklyn, NY
Quinn Erwin first came to my attention as a big part of Afterlife Parade, a top-shelf outfit equally comfortable making can’t-ignore-it pop-rock and textured post-rock. Erwin’s Soul EP builds on the pop-rock side of Afterlife Parade, getting crunchier and catchier simultaneously.
The titular track of Soul kicks off the four-song effort with hammering piano, crunchy guitar, handclaps, and Erwin wordlessly throwing his voice around in some great melodies. There’s a pop-rock chassis to the tune, but from the wheels up it’s all muscly soul attitude and yearning blues vocals. There’s a bit of dance-rock thrown in for spice at the end, but this is primarily an earthy, Southern (but not Southern rock) jam. “Heritage” builds on that earthy pop-rock blend, fusing a stomping backbeat to a scuzzed-out guitar line with some zinging synth on top of it. Erwin’s repeated plea (“Don’t let this be my heritage”) and anguished “la”s give the tune some extra punch (as if it needed any). Both of these tunes have a crunch that wasn’t often there in Afterlife Parade, but don’t sacrifice any of the melodic prowess. If anything, these are even catchier tunes.
“Reality” and “Soul (acoustic)” pull back from the unique vibe of the first two tracks and push the sound in different ways. The straightforward pop-rock of “Reality” does have thrumming bass and insistent snare, but the vibe here is less Southern attitude and more U2-style pop expansion. (You can hear Bono in the wordless, nearly a capella bridge, for sure.)
The acoustic version of “Soul” pulls the excellent arrangements out of the mix and shows that with or without a backing band, “Soul” is a torrential song. Just because there’s only an acoustic guitar accompanying Erwin doesn’t mean he sacrifices any of the attitude or intensity of the tune. The song reveals just how impressive a vocalist Erwin is by putting the focus squarely on his vocal performance.
Soul is one in a series of EPs Erwin is releasing, so we’re going to be treated to more work from him in the near future. And the work is a treat; Erwin’s clear vision for fusing his pop-rock background with other sounds creates distinctive, exciting work. Soul establishes (for some) and continues (for others) the need to carefully follow everything that Erwin is up to.
Soul drops tomorrow, April 29. If you’re in the South, you’ll have some chances to catch him soon on the #OYOUGOTSOUL Spring Tour:
04.29: Biloxi, MS
04.30: Mobile, AL
05.06: Baton Rouge, LA
06.10: Birmingham, AL
The Bitter Poet’s “Guy’s Gotta Breathe” is a manic, almost unhinged anti-folk stream of consciousness anchored by literate, specific lyrics and Kevin Draine’s engaging vocal performance.
Over a charging electric guitar line, Draine laments in rapid-fire style relationships current and past, potential apartment hauntings, old laundry, Simon & Schuster, the way coffee tastes three hours after it’s made, never being able to go back to your favorite restaurant, and various other slights (great and small). It is a whirlwind 2:46. His voice moves from a grumble to a howl throughout the song, keeping the listener close with his tenor’s ratcheting tension. The tension finally explodes at the end of the tune, providing a fitting end to the wild ride.
If you’re into The Mountain Goats’ lyrics (or their unhinged moments, like “Psalm 40:2”), you may find The Bitter Poet to be incredibly appealing. In the way of all unique things, the song does takes a moment to adjust to–Draine does not mind dropping you in en media res to his take on things. After you settle in, it’s really impressive and calls for multiple listens.
“Guy’s Gotta Breathe” comes from the upcoming Trail of Glitter, which drops May 6. You can check out tour dates and more info on where to buy the record at The Bitter Poet’s website. If you’re in NYC, you can also check out NYSolo6, the monthly singer/songwriter showcase that he runs.
“Californian Sun” is the opening song off Little Lapin’s sophomore album, Holding Out for the Kicks. This track is breezy alt-country at its finest.
The soulful electric guitar and overall beachy instrumentation contrast smashingly with Little Lapin’s twangy yet theatrical voice. “Californian Sun” forces me to sway; it’s just that kind of song.
The second track, “Gratuity,” echoes the instrumentation of the first, yet slows things down a bit. Here, the acoustic guitar is the star of the show. In both tracks, unassuming male vocals pair perfectly with Little Lapin’s lovely voice and intimate lyrics; think Iron & Wine.
Based on these two tracks, Holding Out for the Kicks will be a sweet-tempered summer album, set to release July 16.
Ashley Riley‘s “This Town” is an ode to everyone who feels that magnetic pull of a small town, even when they’ve gone off to the big city. You can take the person out of the town, they say…
Riley’s hometown reminiscences are sung in a dusky alto and set over an arrangement that splits the difference between old-school country and modern singer/songwriter. (With Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton becoming cool, it might be the country that’s the “cool” half these days.)
The drums and bass hold down the frame of the song, while the electric guitar pushes on the bounds of both country and singer/songwriter. It’s ultimately a tune that’s just as accessible and understandable as the lyrical statement it makes. If you’re looking for a smooth, easy tune to help you relax in a hammock on a spring afternoon, here’s one for you.